After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

Alasdair MacIntyre

Book cover

MacIntyre, in the tradition of his self-avowed enemy Nietzsche, makes his ethical argument by telling a story. Imagine, he says, if there were a massive revolution against science in which almost all the scientific writings and work to the present day were destroyed. (I couldn’t help but think of “Dune” while reading this.) Then, imagine that many years later, people started to be interested in science again and started to piece things back together. At that time, people might use many scientific terms and concepts, but would be using them in an extremely weakened and often confused sense. This, says MacIntyre, is what has in fact happened to ethics in our culture.

His argument runs roughly as follows: in ancient traditions, there were three interrelated concepts: man as-he-naturally-is, man as-he-could-be-if-he-achieved-his-telos, and virtue, which is the way to get from point A to point B (and partly constitutive of point B). His favorite guy in this tradition is Aristotle, though he discusses many others. Then, in the Enlightenment, the idea of “point B”, the teleological goal for man, was abandoned. But “point A” and the language of virtue remained in the culture. A major strand of philosophy for the next few centuries consisted of people trying to justify moral rules based on the virtue concepts solely based on point A. Some tried to do this based on sentiments (Hume), others on rationality (Kant), but all failed, according to MacIntyre, and what’s more, they were doomed to fail from the start. Because of the genealogy of the ideas (virtues were what you needed to break away from point A), it was by definition impossible to justify virtues/morality based on point A alone.

It is tough to walk a line avoiding either claims to complete universalizability or complete relativism, but I think MacIntyre does an admirable job. While I’m not sure I completely buy his positive views on morality, he certainly made me think. I also had a lot of fun reading him. I particularly like the way he is completely willing to claim that he has completely discredited the arguments of great philosophers such as Kant in the space of just a few paragraphs. The only reason I don’t think this book deserves five stars is that it meanders a bit in the early-middle before hitting its stride again later.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars